This week we’re beginning a five week sermon series on the book of James. The series is entitled Friendship with God.
The title comes from two verses in the book of James that I believe are the theme of the whole book. The first is Chapter 2, verse 23, which says, “And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called a friend of God.
The second is chapter 4 verse 4. “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God. Therefore anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
This letter of James was most likely written by James, the half brother of Jesus, and full brother of another new testament writer named Jude. It’s often been said that one of the greatest evidences of Jesus being raised from the dead was this: his brothers believed it. What would it take for you to believe that one of your siblings was the Savior of the world? Nothing less than a resurrection, I think.
James didn’t believe in Jesus during the time of his ministry, but after he was raised from the dead, he came to faith. James actually became a leader of the church in Jerusalem, which was kinda like the mother church of all the Jesus followers in the world.
Perhaps because of his status in the church and perhaps because of his close, personal knowledge of Jesus, James letter is willing to get all up in our business and challenge the way we live. But I believe that it’s all for the purpose of this: that Christians would live in friendship with God.
The true Gospel
You see, lots of Christians think like this: how much can I get away with and still be saved? That’s sub-Christian. It’s backwards. That’s not living out of God’s goodness, it’s manipulating God’s mercy. A good friend might forgive me if I wrong them, but I’m no friend at all if I don’t change my behavior to be more honoring to the friendship.
James wants us to think like this: since my relationship with God has been reconciled, how can I move into a closer relationship– a deep friendship?
The cheap version of Christianity is “believe that Jesus died for your sins and you’ll go to heaven when you die.” The Jesus version of Christianity is “pick up your cross and follow me.” It’s by dying to ourselves that we gain life.
So I think that James looked around the church, and he was seeing a lot of so-called Christ followers who showed no interest in actually living as if their beliefs were true.
The letter of James is basically a war against what is often called “nominal Christianity”– which is Christianity in name only… Christianity does not form people who live and love as Jesus did.
One of the things I pray frequently is this: God I want to be a real Christian today. I don’t think that any of us want to be hypocrites. We want to be the real deal, but often times we don’t know how to get there.
Making matters worse is that we’re afraid of what God might ask us to do. So frequently we don’t ask– or if we ask, we don’t listen for an answer. I’m not trying to be mean– I’m just really talking out of my personal experience for a long time and out of the conversations that I have with lots of Christians.
So what can you expect from these 5 weeks? If you stick it out and take the scripture seriously, I can guarantee you that God is going to grow your through it. It might feel a little bit like getting surgery though– difficult in the moment, but worth it in the end.
I want to use verse 21 as a jumping off point for our reflection today. Here it is from the common english bible, which I think is a bit easier to understand:
“Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.
“Welcome the word”
I found myself meditating on that word “welcome.” I thought about welcoming a friend to my house. Being excited if I see them drive up or hear their car door close. Opening the door and greeting them with joy before they even set foot in the house. Offering them something to drink, while I finish preparing the awesome dinner I’ve made for them.
But what does it mean to “welcome the word.”
Do you have any really good friends? As Katie and I were talking about this, we began to think of some of our really good friends. Friends that would come if you needed them. Friends that would drop whatever plans they had to help you if you were in trouble. I hope you have a friend like that.
Can you just nod your head if you know the type of friend that I’m talking about?
And I wonder if you also have any friends like this: friends that will tell you what you need to hear. I’m not talking about someone who goes around pointing out people’s faults. I’m talking about a real friend. Someone who loves you and knows you really well.
I really hope you have that type of friend. I’m very thankful for have a handful of those people in my life. And here’s the thing with that type of friend: they can tell when I’m off. They can tell when I’m in trouble. They can tell when I’m not telling them something.
So if one of those friends were to come to me with something to say to me, I welcome it. I know that they’re not going to tell me more than I can handle, but that they’re going to say exactly what I need to hear. I trust them.
And if that friend needs me for a change– if they call and say, “Hey, I could really use your help,” hopefully I’m going to drop everything to do what they ask of me. Because in a good relationship, no one is asking too much.
James says “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (NRSV) … “welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you” (CEB).
If you want to know if you’re living out of a deep friendship with God, then ask yourself this question– Do I welcome God’s word for me?
God has been such an amazing friend to me. But for so many years I manipulated that relationship. I called God late at night to help me– and God came every time. But I never want to hear what God wanted of me. Ah! It’s so heartbreaking to think about. For years I treated God like a vending machine. I put a prayer in, I get some help out.
We know what true friends are like. And we know what lousy friends are like. In a lousy relationship, one person is a sponge, sucking up whatever the other will give. It’s completely one-sided. Maybe you’ve had a friend like that. You show up at midnight for them and they won’t lift a finger for you when you need something. Those friendships don’t tend to last.
I’m so thankful that God is patient. Jesus gave everything for me, and for so long I was that lousy friend. Maybe you’ve been like that too. God could have just thrown up his hands and said “I’m done with you,” but instead you’re pursued with unending love.
You can’t say you’re a friend of God if you haven’t done the like 20 things that God asked you to do. You can’t say you’re a friend of God if you never pick up the phone when God calls.
When I was writing this message, God said, “stop what you’re doing, and spend 15 minutes with me.” In my heart, I argued for like 5 or 10 seconds, “I’m too busy… I’m trying to get this sermon written about being friends with God.” God loves to hit me with irony. And you know, God didn’t say, “spend time with me and it’ll help you know what to say.” The relationship was the aim. But even though God knows it, I forget all the time– the relationship is what I need the most.
This is why I believe friendship with God is the key to getting inside James’ mind and understanding what he’s saying. James says, “welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.” It’s in submitting to God’s plan, God’s will, God’s word, God’s law, that we find peace with God. If you want to be a friend of God, then when God calls you with an assignment, you do it, no matter the cost. That’s why the very next sentence in James’ letter is “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
The single marker of friendship with God is obedience.
So is it obedience that brings salvation? No. It’s receiving the word that you know already. The word that has the power to save your soul.
James says “Every good gift… comes from above… from the Father.” And then it says in verse 18, “He [God] chose to give us birth by his true word,”
The gospel, the good news, is God’s true word. And when we welcome it, we become new people. God “gives us birth”– a new birth, a second birth, into a new life. We put aside all of the nasty stuff that puts us at odds with God, and we receive the good news as from a friend.
James’ point is that when we welcome God’s true word into our lives, God makes us into new people, so that we can show others what God wants to do for everyone. God wants a huge family of friends. People that God can share the work with.
Jesus says in Matthew 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
Receiving the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself draws people into what Paul calls “the obedience of faith.”
Obedience is the mark of friendship with God.
James says, “Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like.”
James lived in a time where mirrors were a luxury. You might see your reflection in a pool of water, but it would be dim. If you came across a mirror though, what I precious thing it was. A polished piece of metal. Something only a rich person would have. You could see yourself as others see you. And it would be crazy to walk away from that and forget what you look like.
James says that hearing God’s word is like looking into a mirror. It shows how you really are. It shows you what you look like from God’s point of view. To not live that out is madness.
He says, “But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.”
James starts talking about it as “law,” because he wants us to be clear– this is not optional for friends with God. But at the same time, it’s “the law of freedom,” because we find that when we submit to it, we’re actually freer. If I decide to disobey the traffic laws, I’m going to have a hard time driving down the road without hurting myself or others. When I submit to the traffic laws, then I actually have more ability to go where I want to go and do what I want to do.
This is what we’re going to be talking about for the next 4 weeks: what does friendship with God really look like? Or to put it in the terms of James, what is “true religion” or “true devotion”. He gives us some previews of what’s coming. “If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves.” and he says “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.”
James is a short book. You could read it aloud in 15 or 20 minutes. It’s a tough book– not to read, but to receive– but it’s totally worth it. In these next four weeks, you might hear something and think, “I don’t like that at all!” That’s ok. But it’s what you do with that that matters. The faithful thing to do is to take that to God. Pray it over. Read what Jesus says. Read what Paul says. And then ask God, how do you want me to live this out? What do you want me to do right here and right now?
As for me, I want to be that friend that God can call in the middle of the night. That’s true Christianity. Sure I want to depend on God, but I want God to be able to depend on me! For God to call on me and say, “I’ve got something for you to do,” and for me to say, “Yes, Lord, I would love to!”
May you welcome the word that you already know– the word that has the power to save your souls. May you pursue a deep friendship with God. And may you live a life of obedience to the God who has given you life. Amen.